Sunday, 23 January 2011

The peculiar resident of the plaza

My first trip to Madrid fell on a swelteringly hot weekend in mid-August and the capital, normally bustling with activity, had retreated into a lazy summer reverie. The labyrinth of narrow streets that spiral from the centre of the city was markedly quiet: metal gates guarded the darkened windows of shops shut-up for summer and the hours of siesta were eeked out to last until 6pm.

A stranger in the city, with little idea of its geography, I frequently found myself drawn to the Plaza Mayor over that first weekend. As the centrepiece of the capital, the expansive, pedestrianised square is a welcome breath of open-space. Neatly symmetrical, it is bordered by three grand buildings, each decorated by uniform rows of neat balconies with matching white shutters and lined by clusters of chairs and tables, carefully arranged by the overpriced cafés. A picture-perfect scene, the imposing central statue, that of a portly horse and a proud rider, is framed by two clocktowers standing tall either side of the main building, which is elaborately painted in yellows and golds. It is only on closer inspection do you notice that each clock keeps a different time, and that the subtle colours of the building´s artwork disguise curiously lurid paintings of naked women.

When I arrived back in August, and scalded my legs on the stone of what is now my customary bench, the unforgiving sun was thrust high in a fantastic blue sky and radiated wobbly heatwaves that blurred my vision. A far cry from the carnival of winter months, the plaza was sleepy and lethargic: the street artists had retreated to the shady pavements of the main roads, a handful of tourists sheltered under the broad, white parasols erected by cafés and gaggles of locals clustered around whichever bench offered an oasis of shade. Few braved the scorching heat of the direct sunshine... except for one: a curiously out-of-place, out-of-shape Spiderman.

Initially his distinctive outline seemed glaringly incongrous with the grandeur of the square. Now however, Spiderman has become something of a fitting peculiarity. Dressed from head to toe in a trademark red and blue suit, which has long since lost its elasticity, he strides confidently around the square, hands clasped loosely behind his back and belly thrust forward, pausing periodically in different locations to survey the scene. The faded tunic stretches easily over the large, rotund curve of his belly, the neckline pulled low to reveal a fleshy ring of skin between suit and mask and the slack fabric gathering loosely in folds under his distended belly. The trouser legs fall just short of his ankles grazing his calf, revealing long, well-worn trainers, a sun-bleached black and imprinted with the characteristic red web.

In quieter moments, he might pause from his duties and lean wearily against the clocktower, one leg resting on the pillar. With his mask folded up to nose level, his leathery skin creased under his nose in a slight snear, he puffs idly on a cigarette, occasionally raising a hand in a casual salute to other performers, or grunting a greeting to a nearby waitor. However, always on the pulse of the square, he is quick to jump back into action should he glimpse a prospective customer. Hastily stubbing out a cigarette, he unrolls his mask and slips easily into his rehearsed theatrics: affecting a booming voice he barks select words and pulls choice poses alongside tourists who shuffle awkwardly at his side, smiling sheepishly at the flashes and snaps of their camera amidst the bellows of “...and now scaaary...and “...seeexy...!”

I am now a regular visitor to the square, taking half an hour most days to sit on one of the circular stone benches that mark the four corners of the cobbled square and watch the world go by. As the incessant heat of summer has abated, the clear blue skies of August first becoming heavy with autumnal clouds and then sharp with the biting freshness of winter, the square has become a hive of activity. Now, a steady stream of people filter through the lofty arched entrances at each corner and a motley assortment of street performers mingle with the crowd to ply their trade.

Spiderman is no longer an out-of-place comical caricature, standing solitarily in the sun-bleached square, but is often accompanied by a sullen Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse duo, or surrounded by the melodious Ave Maria´s of saxophone players. Yet while other buskers come and go, Spiderman´s occupation the plaza never wavers. Day-in-day-out he is there: when the plaza is like a parched desert burning under the unforgiving sunshine; when heavy clouds are sitting oppressively on the rooftops; when the cobbles are slippery and wet and rain splashes into the small pools between them. Loyally present, come rain or shine, he is the ringmaster of the street circus, an idiosyncracy of the square, and as much a part of the furniture as the majestic central statue.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Only a beach will do...

I have just spent a cushty two weeks cocooned in the comfy bubble that is living back at home. Being welcomed into a clean and cosy house, full of family, with well-stocked cupboards and warm radiators is always a treat; even more so at Christmas when friends and family from the four corners return and the house oozes christmas cheer. After a few months of pushing my comfort zones in Madrid, relaxing into the easy fold of familiarity had never been so sweet.

The upshot of this of course, is that it amplified the annual bout of January Blues ten fold. In fact, it so magnified my reluctance to return to Madrid that I inadvertently found myself scanning recruitment websites for jobs in London. Far from bouncing back to Madrid refreshed and eager, it was a struggle to heave my weary self to the airport.

When I initially moved to Spain in September, the sky-high temperatures, bohemian lifestyle and buzz of arriving somewhere new made it difficult to miss the daily grind of a 9 to 5 in London. Now, when Madrid´s cloudy grey skies are identical to London´s, a forever-changing timetable and no set income is less appealing.

However, despite my grumbles, I am under no delusions that returning to a job in London would be any less unpleasant, and am well aware that January melancholy is a common affliction suffered by all. It seems that after two weeks of over-indulgence and excess, almost everyone is battling a stubborn hangover that has been lingering since New Year´s Day. Relatively speaking, returning to a part-time teaching post in a cultural capital is nothing to complain about. Even so, I am still dragging my feet...

I´ve come to the conclusion that the best solution is to don the backpack again and head off in search of a sandy shore for a few months. Not only a tried and tested remedy for solving back to work blues, it is also an effective, if drastic, way to comfortably push aside the reality of finding a career and making a living. What´s more, the constant barrage of new experiences when travelling waylays any longings for home. A win-win situation whichever way you look at it!